Rick Hess sets Gadfly straight

Frederick M. Hess is an educator, political scientist and author who studies K-12 and higher education issues. In addition to his Education Week blog Rick Hess Straight Up, he is the author of many influential books on education including Education Unbound, Common Sense School Reform, Revolution at the Margins, and Spinning Wheels. A former high school social studies teacher, he has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University, and Harvard University. Hess visited Ohio recently to discuss education policy with Ohio educators, community and business leaders, and lawmakers. The Ohio Education Gadfly caught up with him between meetings.

Q . You’ve been critical of Race to the Top. Why?
A. The aspiration is a good one. I think doing it through a competitive grant makes sense but I think the sum is large, the program is so novel, and the opportunities for getting it wrong are so great that it’s important to be incredibly thoughtful to get it right and I’m worried we’ve fallen short on that count. 

Q. How so?
A. We’ve done an insufficient job of buffering it from political officials. I think too much of the scoring is based on hot fads of the moment and buzz words rather than knocking down outdated policies and anachronistic practices. I think the criteria for judging were insufficiently spelled out. It’s been too dependent on personalities and has featured too little attention on institutionalization and establishing clear, credible routines. The guidelines for spending and applications have been too ambiguous.

Q. A lot of education reform ideas have been around for a long time but they have never been adopted in a meaningful way. What’s the likelihood that real reform will actually be adopted?
A . I’m generally a pessimist, especially concerning whether school districts are going to do these things to re-engineer themselves. I’m modestly optimistic that if we allow educators room to use the tools and create the conditions, that they’ll flourish. And, I’m modestly optimistic that we will start to see these tools used to scale.

Q. What will it take to reform?
A. We have this habit of rather than standing back and understanding the system’s design flaws and creating room for people to build new systems, we keep trying to slap on duct tape and bandages. So we push a new reading program or new system for teacher quality and push it into the same old system. The fiscal crisis we’re seeing could create the opportunity to create new models of teaching and learning just because our traditional mode may seem unaffordable. Those models and programs could encourage people to create opportunity and policies and get resources to create a positive feedback. I think we’re starting to get that cycle rolling.

Q. How do you scale up reform ideas?
A. This depends less on teachers than on people building education organizations. Some is technology – the ability to beam a teacher into a classroom across the world, to tutor a child from 10 miles away – but it’s also having a pool of educated adults much larger than 50 years ago looking for different kinds of work and different skills that we can utilize in classrooms. The Citizen Schools in Boston recruits people in the community to teach. The Boston schools are tapping into this. It’s a way to leverage talent in the community. There are techniques now that schools could tap into if they chose to. Near-term we’ll see things that help districts do their jobs and fit more comfortably in the familiar model. On the other hand, simply giving a voucher or allowing a student and family to choose a charter school does not yield any of that.

Q. You call for educational entrepreneurship. How does that relate to school administrators?
A. It’s alien to the way we think about education. But we’ve always had entrepreneurs in education. If you go to Cleveland or Dayton you will find administrators who find talented staff and get resources. But they do it by staying under the radar, having connections in the central office. Instead of expecting that these guys should hide like rats in the wall, we should recognize and honor them and figure out how to make it easier to use these same wiles to serve more kids more effectively.

Q. What do you think when you hear the term “best practices?”
A. I get nauseous. On the face of it, good practices make good sense. If you tell me there are good ways to take attendance and drill a kid in reading, I buy it. Or there are certain ways a high-performing school wants its teachers to instruct. Okay, but what’s a best practice in one organization isn’t necessarily a best practice in another. The reason it might work at the school across town is that the faculty is invested in it. That’s different from trying to import it and impose it on faculty who may not feel the same investment in that particular practice.

Q. Teacher colleges still turn out teachers who know all about pedagogy but don’t know how to teach. Where do you break the teacher training cycle?
A. Go to High Tech High in San Diego – the only place where you can train as a teacher in a high school rather than a college. Teachers there are in residency. High Tech has enough graduates that it can now staff its own schools from the people it has trained. That’s hard to do but KIPP runs many schools and there are others that operate enough schools that they could train their own. If we try to get the traditional teaching schools to buy in, this probably won’t work but a school district could do this. You start to only work with people who are comfortable with the way you want teachers to teach. And rather than imagine every teacher has to have equal weight, focus on the veteran teachers. Invest deeply in them. They buy into it. Give them the most important grades to teach and provide role modeling and supervision.

Q. How will budget constraints in Ohio and elsewhere affect the reform effort?
A. Across the country most superintendents have turned down thermostats, delayed textbook purchases, and rejiggered bus routes. No one has been creative about virtual instruction, using new providers, or reevaluating their cost structure. A lot of easy stuff has been done. The key is for reformers to get away from vague rhetoric of “choice” and “accountability” and to talk concretely about what the state or district might do and how various innovations can generate big cost savings.

Q. You’ve met with Ohio lawmakers. What have they wanted to know?
A. They’ve been very interested in ways to address the budget situation. There’s particular interest in how the state can start recognizing and rewarding districts that are cost effective. There’s a question about how we do better when it comes to teacher quality and helping districts get enough good teachers and there’s thinking about how to use accountability to support improvement in terms of academic achievement and cost effectiveness.

Q. Ohio lawmakers will have to make some very serious budget decisions in the next biennium. Can we have better schools if we have to cut billions from state education spending?
A. We don’t know. My gut instinct is yes. You can take it out and wind up with schools as good as or better. No one has ever tried. If you leave the entire infrastructure in place and you try to do it for 75 cents on the dollar, then you’re going to do worse. But if taking 25 cents off the table prompts people to think, “OK, we have to rethink the whole shebang,” then it’s an open question of doing better for less.

Q. What should parents and students bring to the “perfect” school?
A. I’m an old high school teacher. I just wanted to be in a school where the families were supportive of the instructional mission, where the kids are disciplined and engaged, where the leadership is supportive, and where teachers can focus on instruction. I don’t think we can get there in our current system.

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